The Sunday Intertitle: Rogue Statesman

THE BELOVED ROGUE, in which John Barrymore embodies swashbuckling poet François Villon, had haunted my imagination for almost thirty years when I finally saw it. My earliest definite encounter with the movie was in Brownlow and Gill’s epic documentary series Hollywood, where one episode examined the art of special effects in the twenties, and dissected a marvelous stunt where Barrymore is apparently catapulted across the rooftops of Paris and into his romantic interest’s bedroom. I was entranced by the panache and the artifice — amazing sets by William Cameron Menzies, presenting a skewed, expressionistic medieval city like something out of a Maurice Noble Bugs Bunny background, and zesty performances from a cluster of extreme physical types.

Now, I have an even earlier memory which may relate to this film: as a kid, I was excited by an extract from a silent adventure movie which featured a group of heroes of varying physical dimensions_- I think one was a dwarf. As I grooved to Barrymore’s athletic romp, I started to suspect that this movie, released by the Killiam Collection, was the source of that that same long-forgotten clip: Killiam did create a TV series out of sequences from notable silent movies… But I can’t be sure.

Barrymore’s buddies in his Robin Hoodesque capers are played by Slim Summerville (slim), Mack Swain (fat) and Angelo Rossitto (short), three noteworthy thesps with striking bodies and striking bodies of work. Slim made his debut as a Keystone Cop and racked up two hundred pictures, including outings for John Ford and Fritz Lang. Swain was Chaplin’s co-star in THE GOLD RUSH, sharing a meal made from a boot, the role for which he’ll always be remembered, but he too had a long history at Keystone, continuing into talkies as a but-part player. Angelo Rossitto is most celebrated for his work in FREAKS, where he seems to be the leader of the troupe, although this is more to do with his natural authority than with any textual evidence to be found in the script. He certainly has more authority than you’d expect in a man of 2’11 in height, with legs curved fantastically outwards as if his bean-shaped torso rested upon a horseshoe. Discovered for the movies by Barrymore, he makes his debit here aged 19, and would keep acting until 1987, although he had to support himself most of that time by running a newsstand.

This startling gang of misfits are given nothing to work with save their outlandish appearances, and serve basically to support the dashing Barrymore and make him look more handsome. And Barrymore IS startlingly impressive as a leading man, before cynicism and alcohol got the better of him: not only a Great profile, but a Great Physique.

Lovely Legs Night in the Pit of Despair.

Every player in the movie is a beautifully designed caricature, from the charming Marceline Day, who even manages to project innocent allure while wearing a hat that looks like a cross between a tea-cosy and a wasp’s face. The slender but inventive plot involves Villon protecting Paris from the depredations of the Duke of Burgundy (Lawson Butt), but his real enemy is the King whose interests he protects. As Louis XI, Conrad Veidt does such a great job of portraying a craven halfwit in thrall to superstition that he risks capsizing the whole movie — it’s impossible to care about the political issues covered in the story since it’s almost certain that France would be in safer hands with the sadistic Burgundy in charge rather than the moronic Louis. But one can’t begrudge Veidt his fervid overplaying, which makes all his scenes thrilling and neurotically warped. His entrance, a long tracking shot in which he creeps forward into the shadowy and tilting set, sporting a creepy centre-parting of the kind favoured by the late John Cazale, has a crazy splendour.

The Big Shave.

Remarkable how a combination of unnecessarily gargantuan talents (at least three geniuses: Barrymore, Veidt, Menzies), voluminous production values, and sheer energy, can rescue  a pretty straightahead cut-and-paste job in which highlights from the Dwan-Fairbanks ROBIN HOOD jostle with set-pieces from THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (the Feast of Fools, the Court of Miracles). I mean, such a cheeky combo was always going to be fun, but this movie is like a Superman comic drawn by Daumier.

23 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Rogue Statesman”

  1. I trust you’re familiar with the Sturges-scrpted If I Were King, with Ronald Colman as Villon.

  2. David Boxwell Says:

    Wow! Looking forward to seeing this one.

    Rossitto: fantastic in Browning’s THE UNKNOWN (26) as Chaney’s malevolent lil’ buddy Cojo (shortened form of “cojones”).

    Menzies: The other day TCM USA just broadcast ADDRESS UNKNOWN (44), which was a revelation. Uniquely for 1944, AU ALMOST, but not quite, portrays a Jew exacting fatal revenge against a Nazi for the death of his daughter (there’s a plot twist which makes this a pulled punch, however). And exemplary expressionistic camera work by Rudolf Mate and stylized sets by Menzies.

  3. david wingrove Says:

    This one looks truly splendiferous! Alas, I only know the Francois Villon story via the kitsch Rudolf Friml operetta THE VAGABOND KING – but something tells me this is a wholly other league. And if it has Conrad Veidt into the bargain…

  4. I have a fuzzy VHS of If I Were King, which does show a very different Sturges at work: the high-flown poetic strand, without the constant comedy to deflate it.

    Address Unknown sounds fascinating. Menzies is very often a more important presence than the director of the films he worked on. When he himself is the director, his design REALLY dominates.

  5. Who needs a great profile when you’ve got GREAT GAMS. OTOH:

    “Angelo appeared with the great profile in THE BELOVED ROGUE (1927), which also starred the legendary Conrad Veidt. Angelo revealed that when the two great actors met on the set for the first time Barrymore said to the German star of THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1919) “I find I can usually seduce most women using only the hypnotic quality of my voice but in these silent films they are drawn to my profile. Conrad Veidt looked at Barrymore for a moment and replied “Well I just fuck them with my face.” The two actors became great friends from that moment on and made a remarkable film together.”

    http://www.filmsinreview.com/2006/11/01/camp-david-november-2006-freaks/

  6. Angelo may have described himself as a “ham-and-eggs actor” but he had a remarkable innings.

    Off-topic: RIP Ian Carmichael and Johnny Dankworth.

  7. Christopher Says:

    My first encounter with Angelo the little jumping bean..was in’73 on the inserts for Alice Cooper’s album Muscle of Love(the last album by him I’d ever get)Then he was turning up on the horrible Dracula vs. Frankenstein,making the rounds on the telly at the same time..and the 40s monogram films..Then Freaks later on..then silents..I’ve discovered the history of the little fellow in order,from finnish to start..

  8. Christopher Says:

    You might have seen a bit of Fractured Flickers when you saw a clip of this as a kid…I used to love that show..that and the Robert Youngson silent film compilations in the 60s helped spark my interest in film other than Universal horror as a wee laddie..

  9. We saw the Youngsons, but Fractured Flickers never played here. Instead we had Killiam archive shows which took a more reverent approach, and finally the magnificent Hollywood series.

    Here’s an amazing piece of pseudonymous writing (by “Herr Schreck”) I found online, which almost convinces me Dracula Vs Frankenstein is some kind of desperate masterpiece:

    “The film for me more than anything carries the grim pall of actors sliding into dissolution, and the general bitterness–for some, if not most– of being forced to confront mortality after the blast of life. Nothing more glorious for an actor than to know that they’ve been captured in all the glory and fire of their youth and beauty in a great old film, which, when viewed, can seem–at that moment at least– the very center of the universe. It’s the closest thing we have to a fountain of youth. Who wouldn’t want to sparkle forever, guaranteed, knowing that as the eons unfold, one has been captured with all their youthful vibrancy for the admiration of millions, billions, trillions? Fire up those grand old reels of celluloid and for an hour or two in luminous b&w images the actor is not only young again but the king or queen of the very world.

    “Dracula Vs Frankenstein reveals the agony running underneath and to the side of that fountain of youth. Naish in his wheelchair, his dentures percussing his lines, Lon Chaney Jr, afflicted with throat cancer unable to even speak a line, Angelo Rossitto, perhaps the healthiest of the bunch, threatening bitterly in the faux-innocent tones of a nursery rhyme before going on the attack: “I’m just a Lit-tle Man, of use to no one…” (cue sinister laughter).

    “The subtext of creating life, of becoming immortal thru elusive serums, of doomed men cast out of the institutions of their former livelihood, laughed at by former colleagues, seeking such panacea within the dark confines of a house of horrors, the seriousness hidden behind the walls of cheap carny frivolity taken for granted by happy and oblivious kids on dates looking for thrills yet unaware of the sadness behind the showmanship– it’s a great meditation, whether accidental or deliberate, on the disposition of formerly glorious actors tossed aside by the aging process. Seeing poor Lon Chaney Jr., dead, his corpse cuddling the little Of-Mice-And-Men(his greatest glory as an actor?)-esque puppy, makes me think that it’s deliberate.”

  10. Music by John Dankworth. Lyrics by Harold Pinter.

  11. Music by John Dankworth. Lyrics by Benny Green. Sung by Joe Losey’s answer to Nelson and Jeanette — Terence Stamp and Monica Vitti!

  12. Christopher Says:

    When I lived in Australia thru most of the 60s.we had Funny Manns instead of Fractured Flickers..
    There hadn’t been a genuine DRACULA VS FRANKENSTEIN before..Everything was in place for greatness with the cast..and in 1970,most actors from the 1940s were still young enough and in shape for the task,but sadly the right creative powers and visions and money don’t come together at once for these reunions..”Sunset Blvd.” is still the king..

  13. I didn’t think If I Were King was bad (I remember liking it), but it was windy for Sturges. Maybe he thought too much of how nice some of his epigrams would sound coming from Ronald Colman and went overboard. Remember Basil Rathbone as the king in that one, more a mad crank than villainous, and IIRC I found him humorous. It was on VHS in this country, but never DVD, which means it’s been over 10 years since I’ve seen it.

    Good grief, the opening of the Super Bowl is like a fascist rally. Are the FA cup finals anything like that?

  14. But it’s a good game! I feel the Colts are going to win, though, which means that Sarah Palin will be president.

  15. Hm, it appears the Colts aren’t going to win. I have to say this is the most awful batch of commercials I’ve seen in a long while. Some were even insulting.

  16. What a relief. I feel like I did in 2004, when the Red Sox finally won the Series thus guaranteeing the victory of President Kerry.

  17. I’m sure W intended to fix the results of that one too, he just never got round to it.

    I find UK football supporters threatening (all that aggression masquerading as enthusiasm, or vice versa) but they’re not organized enough to seem fascistic.

  18. kevin mummery Says:

    Angelo Rossitto can be seen in the 1955 low-budget thriller(?) Maniac, aka Daughter Of Horror, in his profession-away-from-acting, news vendor. Apparently he actually had a pretty successful newsstand in Venice, California for many years. I wonder if that’s how he was discovered and lured into acting.

  19. kevin mummery Says:

    P.S. Very sad to learn that Ian Carmichael died…I’ll have to watch I’m All Right Jack this week to bask in his warm British glow. Or something.

  20. I remember seeing an uncredited (and very tiny) newspaper seller in a shot in one of my PD films, Breakfast in Hollywood (which is interesting if you want to see Nat King Cole before he was a crooner, and Spike Jones undubbed). Could that have been Angelo? The credits to the film aren’t even complete in IMDb (they don’t have Cole’s bandmates listed as individuals, just Cole himself).

  21. Can’t be that many 2’11 news vendors. If his beat was Venice, it’s a shame he didn’t get a part in Touch of Evil, though. He’d have fitted in nicely.

    Unfortunately, in a way, I watched all my Carmichael movies a month or so ago, so I don’t have anything left as a tribute. But “warm glow” is exactly right.

  22. Randy Cook Says:

    Watched “I’m All Right, Jack” last week, for the first time in 40-something years. Always very fond of Carmichael (never saw his Wooster—make up your own joke there—but guess that’s not unusual for a Yank, though I am a big Wodehouse fan). Anyhow, RIP.

    But back to Barrymore, for a minute? I am a gushing fan when it comes to Mad Jack. If you like this film, you should cast an eye over “Don Juan”. More conservative as far as makeup and costuming and production design but Barrymore is charming and adventuresome and VERY funny in it–Remember Finney in TOM JONES? Some elaborate pantomime showing Tom in a clinch with one inmorata while persuading another to stay around? Albie was cribbing shamelessly from Jack, no question about it.

    But “Beloved Rogue”, despite the rather grotesque makeup design on Villon, has some wonderful stuff from Barrymore. The pathos of Villon’s banishment, conveyed in a sweetly underplayed transformation scene, is as fun as are his histrionic leapings-about; ditto a small moment with his Mother.

    Also, I am convinced that Barrymore was a prime offender in shocking the lip-readers in the silent days. There’s a very clearly-muttered “bastard” in “Don Juan”; “Beloved Rogue” shows him clearly mouthing “son of a bitch” to the Neanderthal guarding him. In my laser disc, the score actually “Mickey Mouses” this phrase with a four-note cue, which correctly puts the emphasis on “bitch”.

    Anyhow, check out some his early, athletic performances. The guy was a wonder to behold.

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